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Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made the World's Most Notorious Horror Movie

Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made the World's Most Notorious Horror Movie

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Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made the World's Most Notorious Horror Movie

4.5/5 (11 ratings)
309 pages
4 hours
Sep 24, 2013


When The Texas Chain Saw Massacre first hit movie screens in 1974 it was both reviled and championed. To critics, it was either "a degrading, senseless misuse of film and time" or "an intelligent, absorbing and deeply disturbing horror film." However it was an immediate hit with audiences. Banned and celebrated, showcased at the Cannes film festival and included in the New York MoMA's collection, it has now come to be recognized widely as one of the greatest horror movies of all time.

A six-foot-four poet fresh out of grad school with limited acting experience, Gunnar Hansen played the masked, chain-saw-wielding Leatherface. His terrifying portrayal and the inventive work of the cast and crew would give the film the authentic power of nightmare, even while the gritty, grueling, and often dangerous independent production would test everyone involved, and lay the foundations for myths surrounding the film that endure even today.

Critically-acclaimed author Hansen here tells the real story of the making of the film, its release, and reception, offering unknown behind-the-scenes details, a harrowingly entertaining account of the adventures of low-budget filmmaking, illuminating insights on the film's enduring and influential place in the horror genre and our culture, and a thoughtful meditation on why we love to be scared in the first place.
Sep 24, 2013

About the author

Gunnar Hansen is the author of several books of history, travel, and poetry. He lives on the coast of Maine.

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Chain Saw Confidential - Gunnar Hansen




Call me Leatherface. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me otherwise, I thought I would do a little acting and see how movies are made. Every once in a while, when the world gets to be too much and I start to feel a bit spleeny, I feel the need to lift my spirits by killing someone. Whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet, I know it’s high time to get onto a horror movie set to harmlessly act out my impulses.

Besides, I needed a job and I thought this would be an interesting one. How many people can tell their friends that they were once in a horror movie, even some obscure thing no one ever heard of?

Still, considering my personality, it was curious that I had decided to be in a movie. I had always hated performing in front of strangers, or even just standing in front of my classmates. In kindergarten, the school Christmas play had left me sweating in fear. Worse, I had muffed my one line. There was no room at the inn became There was no room at the hotel.

As those words floated out into the audience, I desperately wanted to disappear. My brother’s chums unkindly reminded him that we were related. And I will forever know that somehow a hotel is not quite an inn, though my dictionary is mum on the difference.

My fear of visibility stayed with me over the years, so in high school I joined the debate team to confront it. That helped a bit. But not enough.

By the time I was in graduate school at the University of Texas, in Austin, I was writing poetry and taking part in readings. That meant I had to stand up in front of people and perform. Most of us would-be poets were really bad at it. None of us knew how to present our work or ourselves in a way that engaged the audience. And I was the worst—I knew that just the fearful quaver in my voice would drive people out of the room. So I decided once again to do something about it. I took a poetry performance class.

Unfortunately (it seemed to me at the time) my professor liked my voice, so she gave me some additional work. I would not get my grade, she said, unless I acted in some of her directing students’ plays. I had no choice. First I played a series of characters in a Mark Twain pastiche. From there I went on to Of Mice and Men, in which I played Lennie Small, the brutish giant who accidentally kills a puppy. And then—well, he does some more killing.

A year later, fresh out of grad school and freshly fired as a bartender, I ran into the actor who had played George to my Lennie. We found a table at a local joint near the university campus for a cup of coffee.

A friend of his joined us to listen in on our reminiscences. Eventually he asked me if I was an actor.

I mumbled something noncommittal.

It was too bad that he hadn’t met me earlier, he said. Some guys in town were making a horror movie. He had a role in it himself, and I would have been perfect as the killer—except the part had already been cast. He did not explain why I would have been perfect. I didn’t think anything of it.

Some days later I ran into him on the street. He was excited to see me again. The situation had changed, he said. The filmmakers were looking for a killer after all, because the original actor was holed-up drunk in a motel and wouldn’t come out. He gave me the name and number of the casting director.

What part was he himself playing, I asked.

He smiled sheepishly. He wouldn’t be in the movie, he said. He had backed out. Bad karma, he said, being in a movie like that. Bad for the soul.

I don’t even remember his name. But I have often wondered what happened to him and what he thought in later years of having quit the film. I have also asked Kim Henkel, Chain Saw’s co-writer and associate producer, who he might have been. Kim does not remember that a cast member quit before production started, or even that they had cast a Leatherface before me. Maybe this mysterious character was just some ghost haunting the docks before this production set sail for its fate.

The casting director turned out to be Robert Burns. I had known of Bob in high school, though he had graduated the year before I arrived. He had been part of the drama club and often stage-managed productions, as well as designing and constructing sets. He had a reputation for his droll sense of humor and had been so popular with his drama club mates that he had come back the next year to visit. That is when I heard of him. By that time he was writing for The Texas Ranger, the University of Texas humor magazine, the highest achievement I could imagine. Eventually he would become its editor.

A decade later, Bob still had that dreadful sense of humor, larding his talk with agonizing, improbable puns delivered with a stretched-out Central Texas drawl and an expectant pause at the end, as if waiting for a groan. Now he was in a storefront office in downtown Austin, doing promotional design. He called his business The Rh Factor, a bloody name honoring Rondo Hatton, a B-movie actor of the 1930s and 1940s who had suffered from gigantism. Hatton had played villains in a series of thrillers, including The Brute Man (1946), in which he played, of course, The Brute Man. Bob had proclaimed himself the world’s greatest, and only, living Rondo Hatton expert.

A Linda Lovelace Deep Throat pinball machine dominated the small Rh Factor office, something Bob had designed and built from a previously defunct, more innocent machine. He was proud of his invention and quick to point it out. It eventually appeared in Playboy.

In fact, the office was cluttered with debris, mostly props for the new movie—cowhides and bones and strange lamps and balsa-and-foam sledgehammers and fake wrenches. Apparently Bob was handling the casting only on the side. His real job was as the movie’s art director and production designer. His main worry right then, he said, was whether to dress the set with a plastic skeleton or a real one. Human bones, available from India, were much cheaper than the plastic. It was a common movie dilemma, money versus ethics.

Our conversation was brief. The movie was called Leatherface, he said, and they were looking for someone to play a crazed killer who wore a mask throughout the movie. Was I interested?

I said yes.

He said he would call me.

I doubted that he would. To me, We’ll call you sounded a lot like We won’t call you.

But Bob did call. Could I come down to meet the director and the writer?

I headed downtown immediately. Though I still dreaded performing in front of an audience, this was different. It was a movie, and if I made a mistake on camera we would just shoot it again. Besides, I had already killed on stage and knew I could do it again. And I needed a summer job.

Director Tobe Hooper and his co-writer, Kim Henkel, were waiting for me. Tobe had a mop of brown hair hanging across his forehead, a thin beard, and half a dead panatela in his mouth. The dark-haired Kim was more gaunt and somewhat taciturn, but friendly enough. As I remember, Tobe did most of the talking.

Had I done any movie work before, he asked. Well, I said, I had been in a couple of student films, but I was a quick learner. He frowned. I took it that student films didn’t count and it would be best not to talk about that. This was real filmmaking—hard and bloody work.

We spent the next hour or so discussing the plot of their new movie, Leatherface’s personality and mental state, and his relationship to his family. At least I remember it was an hour—Kim says it was a relatively short and vague conversation, considering how much they needed to tell me.

Long meeting or short, Tobe explained that Leatherface—I loved the idea of having the title role—was retarded. (There is a new term these days, developmentally challenged. Or maybe we would now call Leatherface differently abled. But at the time retarded was perfectly acceptable.) In fact, Leatherface was so retarded that he didn’t really talk, though he did grunt and squeal like a pig at times. Could I squeal like a pig?

I would learn, I said.

Tobe added that Leatherface was insane in a way that made him unpredictable and extremely violent. All this made for a very dangerous man.

The family dynamic was also quite screwed-up, with one vicious, scheming brother (the Hitchhiker); a violent older brother (the Cook) who desperately wanted to think of himself as respectable; and a hundred-and-eight-year-old patriarch (Grandpa) who had long since slipped into a kind of infantile stupor, but whom the family held in awe. As ferocious as Leatherface was, he was also deeply afraid of the others and would do whatever they told him to.

This household was entirely mad. And it lacked women. Still, Leatherface would fill in for this shortage now and then, not by dressing up in women’s clothing, but by literally putting on their faces as masks.

Finally, after this detailed explication, Tobe asked me three questions.

Are you violent?

No, I said.

He paused. Are you crazy?

No. Not the way you mean it.

He frowned. Clearly these were not the answers he had hoped for. Well, do you think you can do it?

Sure, I said. It’ll be easy.

He smiled and sat back. I had the part.

I was relieved. I really wanted to play Leatherface.

In the end it all had come down to these three questions. And though the first two made me wonder what Tobe thought acting was all about, I was delighted to know that I would be playing this retarded, insane, brutal character. I was excited to be in a movie, of course, so maybe my delight simply came from being thought good enough to do it. As to whether I could actually play Leatherface effectively, I had no idea. I would worry about that later. Right now I would just shake hands with Tobe and Kim and enjoy the thrill of having been cast.

The thrill ended quickly when I began to think about the realities. They became unavoidable when I went to the contract party a few days later, something I had never heard of before. It was not a party. It was a serious gathering at someone’s apartment, where we signed contracts and worked on costuming. Tobe was there, as was Kim. It was here that I met some of the other actors and crew and we were fitted for our costumes.

I brought some shirts and my old cowboy boots—I was a big guy with size fourteen feet, and I knew I would be hard to fit. Tobe chose an old, striped, short-sleeved shirt, saying that the wardrobe people would dye the shirt to tone it down and also replace the boots’ worn out soles.

Makeup woman Dottie Pearl (wife of Chain Saw cinematographer Daniel) looked me over and said that she would trim my long hair enough so that when she pulled it up into a kind of Sumo topknot, it would fit under my mask. And my beard would have to go. I hated losing that—I had grown it when I was eighteen years old, and eight years later was quite attached to it.

The other actors were going through the same process. Teri McMinn, playing Pam, who would meet her end on the meat hook, was staring at her very small outfit, including the shortest shorts I had ever seen. Teri had been my college roommate’s girlfriend some years before. When we saw each other we both said the same thing: "What are you doing here?"

Bill Vail, playing Pam’s boyfriend, Kirk, the first to die—from a couple of well-placed sledgehammer blows—was told he would sport a constant two-day beard for the duration of filming, which Dottie said she could manage with a daily pass of her electric clippers.

Allen Danziger was Jerry, the wisecracking van driver who would also meet a hammer, this time in the kitchen. Like me, and unlike the others, Allen had no long-term acting ambitions. He was a social worker and just thought the filming was a chance to try something new. He also had a distinct New York accent. When I asked him how he had come to Austin, he said that he had boarded the wrong train in the Bronx and ended up there, a story he still sticks to.

I do not remember whether Paul Partain was there—he who would play the whining, tiresome, wheelchair-bound Franklin with such constant, intolerable Method Acting conviction that I would relish carving him in half with the chain saw. It seems like he would have been there, but maybe quietly, not yet in excruciating character.

Marilyn Burns would play Sally, the only one of these friends to survive the chain saw family’s onslaught. When handed her script, she quickly flipped through to find her first scene. She was horrified. Her character was described, she says, as bubblegum, braless Sally. She wondered why they had not just gone ahead and added blonde to the description. She was told to buy herself a wardrobe—tight tank top and pants. The pants should be white so they would show up during the night filming. I felt like I was already braless, bubblegum, blonde Sally, Marilyn says. And now I was going to learn to be a slut.

I met these victims only briefly that night and, except for Teri, had little idea of who they were. I would also spend little time with them during the filming—they were kept separate from the killers as much as possible. At least on set I would have plenty of chances to stand back and watch them.

We were four in the family of killers. Jim Siedow, fifty-three at the time, was the Cook. (In the script he is the Old Man, but we never called him that.) Jim was the real pro among the actors, the only one who already had his SAG card. During filming he would need no help shifting from avuncular to sadistic.

Ed Neal was the Hitchhiker. Though Tobe had given Ed his contract before the party, he had come to meet everyone.

I did not meet John Dugan, our Grandpa, till later, when the filming started. Like me, he would not speak on camera. And like me, he would wear a mask—in his case a sculpted appliance and heavy makeup that made his twenty-year-old’s face look a hundred-and-eight.

I would be paid $400 for my two weeks of acting (which would stretch to four weeks). It wasn’t much, Tobe admitted, so the producers had added a fraction of a percentage point of the profits to everyone’s pay—just in case the movie made any money. As further compensation, we would have a big wrap party after the filming with all the production stills available so we could pick some good shots for our résumés.

The contract listed two tentative titles for the movie: Headcheese or Leatherface. I was hoping for Leatherface, of course. I wanted the title role.

I signed the contract, and Tobe handed me my script (which said Leatherface, not Headcheese, a good sign). He must have said something more to me at the time about my character, because directly beneath the title I wrote: Leatherface—voice a little high-pitched. Sometimes breaks.

You know, Tobe said, I wanted to hire you when you arrived for the interview.

Oh? That sounded good.

Yeah. You filled the door.

So much for my acting ability, I thought. But then maybe it was good that he did not have high expectations.

I took the script home and started flipping through the pages, looking for Leatherface. Finally on page fifty-two I found him: . . . a huge, dark figure suddenly appears . . . a horrible leathery mask covering the face and hair. . . . There is a high-pitched pig-like squeal ending in a hysterical whinny as the powerful arm flashes downward. Then, two pages later, a bit more: Leatherface is terrifyingly quick for so monstrous a man.

I was not sure what to make of him. He sounded big, mean, and animalistic, as I expected, but otherwise this did not give me much sense of Leatherface as a character. I figured I had best go back to the beginning and actually read the script.

The grim story unwound in front of me. Sally Hardesty and her brother, Franklin, travel with three friends in a stifling van to their grandfather’s grave site, worried that it may have been vandalized, then drive on toward the abandoned family home. On the way they pick up a freakish hitchhiker who menaces them and cuts himself and then Franklin before they can kick him out of the van. When they stop at an out-of-gas gas station and ask for directions to the old Franklin place, the attendant warns them about messing around in old houses.

There are bad omens along the way—a slaughterhouse, a human tooth lying on the porch of a nearby house the group investigates. Even the horoscope looks bad. Then Leatherface appears, and the killing begins: by sledgehammer, meat hook, freezer, and chain saw. Leatherface pursues Sally through the woods almost endlessly, until she is brought home for dinner with the family, a chaotic, deranged household with its own kind of bickering. Sally escapes. More pursuit. Leatherface cuts his own leg with the chain saw. . . .

I did not think that this was going to be a great movie. Nor did I think it would be awful. I had no experience with movie scripts and no idea what something on the page would look like on the screen. (Forty years and twenty-five movies later, I still don’t.) But I didn’t care. I just wanted the experience of being in a movie.

Even so, this was not going to be fun to make. I hated the heat and I hated running.

Still, I had no qualms about playing the role. It did not bother me that I would play a horrific character in a homicidally insane family. Even considering the earlier drop-out cast member’s concern about karma and his soul—it was the ’70s, after all—I cared nothing about such things. Acting was not being. I knew that it was Leatherface who would be psychotic, not I, and that we would always be separate.

Curiously, Marilyn worried about this for me. She says that she had heard even before the contract party that I was a sensitive poet and writer, playing a character I didn’t want to be. Surely the movie would damage me. I have no idea who fed her this notion.

Still, my main concern was how I would play Leatherface. I began to understand what I was facing in portraying him, and that that was something to worry about.

The first and most obvious problem was the physicality of the role. I would be spending many nights running through the woods in Texas in the middle of summer. How would I survive the distance and the heat?

I was not scheduled to film for a couple of weeks, so I had some time to get into condition. I started walking in my neighborhood before dawn, but quickly tired of the dogs chasing me. So I found a field, paced off a mile, and then started walking and jogging. Soon I was jogging that mile, and eventually I could run the entire distance. I was young back then, and foolish enough to Suffer for Art.

Endurance problem solved, I then needed to address the real acting challenges of creating a character with no face and very limited vocal expression. Looking back, I am actually grateful for these restrictions. I did not know enough about acting to realize that one’s body was always essential. It was what supported the character. If I had had my voice and face fully available, I would likely have missed that most important tool, and the resulting Leatherface would have been pretty lame—even with a face and a voice he would have been less interesting, little more than a snarling, angry idiot who merely lumbered around the house with a chain saw and an attitude. And lumbering was not enough.

Even within the limitations, I still had hope for the vocal part. After all, Leatherface did squeal like a pig. And, according to the script, he also whinnied. I thought I might be able to find a whinny somewhere inside myself, but I had no idea how to squeal like a pig. I did have a friend who lived on a lake west of Austin and had a couple of pigs penned in his yard. They would show me how.

He was skeptical when I called to see about visiting his pigs. Likely I would get nowhere with them. But he did not object, and it was a pleasant afternoon for the forty-five minute drive to his house. After a quick hello, he went back inside to leave me to the pigs.

It’s really hard to rile up a pig. At first I tried yelling, but I got no response. I tried squealing, myself. They did not care. So I climbed in and chased them around the pen. As small as it was—no more than ten feet across—I could not manage to get close. I finally grabbed a long stick and started prodding. I got one of the pigs so irritated that he started to squeal. It was a great sound: sharp and angry and pained. But I could not

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